Cosi fan tutte -- Metropolitan Opera, 11/17/2010
Persson, Leonard, de Niese, Sledge, Gunn, Shimell / Christie
The Met's last revival of Cosi, five seasons ago under James Levine, may have been something like the high-point of his entire Met tenure, at least in musical spirit: after decades of cultivation and before piled-up Boston and health absences (the back problems go back, of course, but his Boston appointment began in 2004), Levine had the orchestra playing for him with not only luminous seamless sound but ever-renewed attention to the breathing of Mozart's musical and emotional phrases. Adding the sympathetic production and the excellent, well-prepared young ensemble cast gave us the show of the year and of many others besides. That the current revival led by William Christie isn't at that level doesn't mean you shouldn't see it.
Part of the charm in 2005 was the intense sincerity -- temperamental in Guglielmo (Mariusz Kwiecien), devoted in Ferrando (Matthew Polenzani) -- of the two men's affection. The new cast, with the same stage director (Robin Guarino), presents a much different aspect. The soldiers' main feature this time is a hearty and youthful male vulgarity: a thing not incompatible with deep feeling but at odds with its extended expression. So while this interpretation makes psychological sense of the bet and the deception (it was surely not the first prank agreed upon while tipsy), it doesn't bring us into intimate sympathy with the two as its more overtly sincere predecessor did. Still, within this framework the soldiers are well-characterized, with Ferrando (as the music reveals) the more pensive and inclined to real feeling. Substitute tenor Bruce Sledge not only sang strongly -- despite the originally-scheduled Pavol Breslik's commendable ardor, there was no sense of drop-off -- but played Ferrando with this core of feeling. (With his nice Met-sized sound, I'm guessing that Sledge's mostly regional career is on account of his moderate gut: to me he suggests a lyric-tenor scale Botha, not least in youthful but dignified carriage.) Meanwhile Nathan Gunn fully indulged both his character Guglielmo's delight in the nonsense and the staging's emphasis on physical motion (these Turks are hardly gentlemanly in their extended groping, pressing, and so on).
On the ladies' side, it is clear this time that Fiordiligi is the prize. Not that Isabel Leonard songs poorly or makes any bad impression as Dorabella: quite the opposite. But given soprano Miah Persson's display of spirit, Fiordiligi is here the leader even in spoiled nonsense -- her initial declaration of friskiness setting the tone. From this through the grand opera seria rhetoric of "Come scoglio" (surprisingly for last season's great Sophie, the low notes are pretty evenly there) and the perfect long concentration of "Per pieta" (the show's best part) and all the uncertainties between and after Persson shows all the lively depth and quickness of feeling that made a winning Sophie, and a solider (though it's by no means vast) voice than one might have expected.
The men, too, acknowledge Fiordiligi's eminence -- at least unconsciously -- when they return in disguise. Whether both are marveling in her display at "Come scoglio" or Guglielmo alone is raging in jealousy at the Act II start, there is a recognized inequality that makes the end exchange both appropriate (Ferrando does seem the better temperamental match) and particularly bitter for Guglielmo.
The two intriguers are about perfect. Danielle de Niese is as well-fit for the saucy dissembler Despina as she was ill-matched to tragic Eurydice. William Shimell is a firm austere prophet of Enlightenment. All blend together successfully.
This revival is also conductor William Christie's Met debut, and while he doesn't merit the raptures to which some are regularly brought by him, he is very good, particularly in the slow introductions and arias -- and more so as the night goes on. The whole is polished, accomplished, and insightful, but whether because of or despite Christie, it lacks the overpowering humane element we saw in 2005.
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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.